Why would I want a female role model?

People have always talked about the need for female role models, and until recently I didn’t understand how this was meant to help.

Why would I want a female math teacher to be my role model, when that bit of selection power might be used to get someone with more math skill? It seemed maybe insulting that people think I care so much about my femalehood that I prefer to copy someone else who shares it than someone who is chosen solely for being good at math. And if people use role models to decide how to behave, isn’t saying that female role models are important the same as saying either that women should behave differently from men, or that women are somehow unable to copy the behavior of men? Doesn’t it lead to more sexism if you suggest to people in this way that their gender is a defining feature and more important than e.g. math skill?

I now have a model of the potential need for female role models that makes sense to me, though I’m not especially confident in it. It may also be completely obvious to everyone other than me. Anyway, here it is.

Society has many stereotyped roles. The kind teacher. The cool businessman. The class clown. The twenty-something trying to figure out what they should do. The nerd.

My understanding of these is this. If you fit kind of near one of these roles, people will see you as being in it. In the same way that if you write a thing that is kind of like an ‘A’, people will read it as an ‘A’. If someone learns that you program a lot and enjoy playing board games, they think ‘ah, a nerd’ and then interpret more ambiguous characteristics to fit this role. For instance whether your clothing style is edgy or oblivious.

When people meet you, they observe your most striking characteristics, and try to figure out which kinds of person those characteristics mean that you are, from this set of known kinds of people. If your characteristics are striking but don’t seem to fit any known kinds of people, the observer will be confused and curious. Maybe you will get to have your own new role, or ‘weirdo’ is quite a large catchall.

People communicate who they are by either fitting known roles, or riffing on them: sort of fitting, but with unique flourishes that set them apart as individuals. Much like how fiction plays off ideas that exist in culture already, assuming the reader knows about the famous stories and common associations. Subtly varying on the themes or consciously subverting them, as commentary on what has come before, and to absorb the meanings from it so that much can be compactly implied. It is harder to write good fiction which sits in an uncharted vacuum, making use of alien characters, norms and ideas. Similarly it is easier to say who you are with clothes and policy preferences and so on, with a common language of kinds of people you might be gesturing at.

Most people don’t mean to fit in one simple stereotype, each person constructs a careful cocktail of them. They usually don’t mean to be a maximally stereotypical philosopher. However they might mean to be a modern freelance formal epistemologist with neuroscience roots and liberal values.

When people are deciding what to do, they often think of the roles available, and choose the one(s) that most appeal to them, and use that to guide their action. Sometimes this is obvious: few people choose a side in a policy debate without implicitly glancing at what a good liberal or conservative would do. But also, if they are choosing how to teach a class, they might have a few images of different kinds of teachers they could be, and select one they most want to try to emulate, rather than choosing their own behavior from scratch. For instance, they might choose the ‘stern but quietly caring’ teacher role. They can imagine what such a teacher would do, so then they do that.

This has the advantages of both being easier for the teacher, and more understandable to others. Parents and students know what to expect – they can readily recognize the stern but quietly caring teacher, and already know about her character.

So, there are all these stereotyped roles you can have. What does this have to do with gender? A lot of the roles are specific to certain kinds of people. You just can’t be the gentle giant if you are only five feet tall. You can’t be the village idiot if you are smart. And you can’t be the sort of person who twiddles their moustache if you can’t grow a moustache. In fact lots of roles come with a gender. The eccentric old professor who smokes a pipe in class can’t really be a woman, or if she is, then that is a notable characteristic, and she is the female eccentric old professor, which is different.

Growing up I socialized little, and the people I could most relate to were probably middle aged guys who wrote books. However our gender and age genuinely didn’t occur to me as relevant. I figured I could grow up to be Dr Who or Einstein or Dirk Gently.

Now I think I can’t really. And I can’t grow up to be Leo Szilard or an absent-minded professor, or an American gentleman who wanders foreign coffee shops and writes in his journal in the evening light, or even just the nerd. If I want to be a nerd, I have to be a girl nerd. Which is not the same character at all, in popularly imagined stereotype-world. If the Terminator had been a woman, would it be the same story? If Sherlock or James Bond were women, that would be an intentional and meaningful choice.

There are lots of roles that men can’t have too. It is hard for a man to be a nanny or nurse or ballet dancer, without being a ‘MALE ballet dancer’ or whatever. I don’t think that men actually have more roles. I also doubt that men’s versions of more feminine roles are more flattering than women’s versions of more masculine roles. However I wonder if men have a better selection of appealing roles on the whole. It is better to be the absentminded professor than the old school maam, or the spinster cat lady. It is better to be the class clown than the conscientious girl. It is better to be the nerd than the nerd girl. It is better to be the scientist than the woman in science. While it’s also better to be the nanny than the male nanny, there is arguably less demand for being some kind of nanny than some kind of scientist.

So, it’s not that I might not know how to do math well unless I see a woman do it, it is that if there aren’t women doing math around, there might not seem to be a female math-doing role at all, and as a young person finding my place in the world I might be hesitant to explore uninhabited territory in kinds-of-people-space. I think the hope is that if there are enough females doing math, there won’t even be some kind of ‘female mathematician’ role, there will just be a ‘mathematician’ role, and it won’t be attached to gender, like ‘environmentalist’ or ‘conservative’ are not. The reason you might want female role models is not to flesh out a female-specific role, but to illustrate clearly that the usual role can be filled by males or females, since many roles are not.

So the female role model is not to show the female that she can do math. It is to show other people that she can fill a mathematical role, and to show her that other people know this.

7 responses to “Why would I want a female role model?

  1. michealvassar

    I think men have more roles, but also that roles are awful, or at least illiberal. We used to have great non-criminal outcast roles, like Jew or Gay, which meant that there was a way out, but tolerance has cut off our escape routes. One can still be an artist, and that’s definitely the best option, but that requires actual skill.

    A big hint at the Non-Productive status of most roles is the fact that roles that are higher status are generally more gendered. Factory worker or farmer aren’t very gendered at all, as the requirements of those roles are that you actually produce something, while teaching and math aren’t expected to produce something. Instead, people are supposed to stand around being those things, and thus conferring status (illegibility?) on their society.

  2. Your reasoning and analysis seems to dovetail with the Representativeness Heuristic and the Conjunction Fallacy – both of which are reasonably scientific explanations for how humans seem to reason.

    Personally, I find that shedding the conjunction fallacy is a more admirable personal goal (and one that you seem to have instinctually achieved) than increasing the prevalence of stereotypical role models in underrepresented regions. It seems unlikely that humanity as a whole will manage to achieve this goal anytime in the near future, which makes adding more varied representative stereotypes a useful endeavor.

  3. The danger in emphasizing representation too much is that it might make people *more* aware of how unusual a woman scientist or a black rocket scientist is, when actually they have no idea what the base rates are and they might not assume that men or white people fit those roles especially. I don’t think this is a huge danger for the public, but it can get pretty oppressive within science. If it weren’t for women in science initiatives, I think I’d personally feel a lot more comfortable being a female scientist. But, of course, most of those are not for my benefit, since I’m already there (though only time will tell if I make it through the pipeline!).

  4. Are you sure you’re not just giving most people too much credit? This might be what’s happening on some implicit level, in some sense, but I think many people may just have a hard time thinking outside known social roles. And some people may, on some implicit level, actually care that much about their race or gender or whatever.

  5. Some people pay great attention to gender. Some people almost ignore it, and mostly focus on other aspects of people. My experience suggests that ignoring gender is the nerdy thing; but as Michael says, it is probably the “doing stuff” thing, which also happens to be the “lower status” thing.

    Think about it this way: lower class is “I work hard”, middle class is “I have skills”, and upper class is “I have power”. Middle class people can signal their status by conspicuously avoiding hard work. Nerd culture is middle-class extremism, which is why some nerds always go meta and never get stuff done, because they perceive actual work as low status. Upper class people can signal their status by shamelessly announcing that they don’t have skills, the idea being that they actually don’t need them to remain at the top, because they have political power and connections instead. When you look at the currect cultural war, you can see upper class values against middle class values: meritocracy versus identity politics. (Gawker’s “Nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission” translates as: middle-class people should remember that they are NOT at the top of the social pecking order.)

    In my opinion this explains how people can perceive gender equality completely differently. The middle-class approach is: let’s ignore gender completely, and focus on the skills. (Similarly for race, sexual orientation, etc.) It is perceived as an injustice when someone’s skills are ignored because of their gender. The solution is anonymous reviews, etc. This is what feels normal to most nerds, I guess. But this absolutely doesn’t work for the upper class, where productive skills means nothing, and it’s all about “who is who” and “who is connected with whom”. The only way to have women in the positions of power is to take a specific woman and put her in a specific position of power. Actual skills are unimportant in this game; any woman can fill the quota, so you better take one with some political power. (Somewhat related to your 2010 article “Why is gender equality so rude?”.)

    On the other hand, some degree of “sexism” is inborn in humans. Children younger than 2 years already prefer to copy people of the same sex. Ironically, this means that same-sex role models should be most important at the elementary school, and less important later, while most politically correct attempts go in the opposite direction.

  6. >However I wonder if men have a better selection of appealing roles on the whole. It is better to be the absentminded professor than the old school maam, or the spinster cat lady. It is better to be the class clown than the conscientious girl. It is better to be the nerd than the nerd girl.
    The first example entails different status not because of gender, but because of the economic difference. The other examples are *highly* subjective.
    To you it may seem like there are more attractive male roles, because you are an untypical woman. A man who enjoys raising children and expressing himself emotionally would probably see it the other way (but would be equally untypical).

  7. I suspect that the need for gendered role models is needed not so much because we need to feel like we would fit in, but because it is often pointed out that we would not because we’ve been actively gendered out of the roles that we aspire to.

    Shedding the conjunction fallacy makes sense, but the conjunction fallacy is not necessarily applicable here: the aspiration to a role is usually not devoid of the gender of the role model, because we are constantly reminded of our (and others’) genders every step of the way. Thus, it’s unlikely for the average person to see a male scientist and forget about that maleness or see a female nurse and forget about that femaleness in their assessment of the person / role (though you seem to have done that, to your credit).

    The aspiration for most people then is not ‘scientist’ but ‘scientist (and associated maleness / masculinities)’ versus ‘scientist (and associated femaleness)’. The existence of many of the former makes it emphasize the gender of the minority, but the gender of the majority is not forgotten in the assessment. If there are fewer/no female scientists, one only has ‘scientist (and associated maleness)’ to aspire to. If one does not posses ‘associated maleness’ in one already, and instead has ‘negative associated maleness / masculinities’, the aspiration to ‘scientist (and associated maleness)’ is automatically more difficult. So either we need gender to be unremarkable / less obvious all round, or have models of diverse genders.


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